Sunday, June 13, 2010

Black Holes and Racism

A story has been going around about the latest battle in the eternal conflict between the NAACP and consumer goods that contain the word “black.” Or something like that. I’ll let the ever-reliable Fox News explain:
A space-themed, talking Hallmark graduation card is being pulled from store shelves because of the card’s reference to a black hole.
But members of the Los Angeles NAACP say the message sounds like "black whore" in the card's audio recording. That's how they hear it, and they say it's racist,  KABC-TV in Los Angeles reported.
And here’s a sampling of the coverage on sites that don’t strive for Fox-esque [1] levels of objectivity:
First poor Pluto was booted from planet-dom for what I can only assume was size-ism. Now, it has been discovered that science itself is racist.
So, it's a graduation card about space and now the term black hole is racist.
Doesn’t this mean NASA is the most racist organization in America?
I’ve said before that conservatives are right to decry the mis- and overuse of “racist.” It is a serious accusation—or at least, it should be. With increasing frequency, the term is attached to stories like this, where there is not even a hint that anyone involved believes in the superiority of one race over another, and the existence of any sort of race-based hatred or prejudice is questionable at best. Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of this is the gradual diminishing of our ability and inclination to recognize a legitimate accusation of racism, which is now more likely to elicit the same response as the frivolous accusations—a groan and a roll of the eyes. Thus, in the interest of being taken seriously and not undermining their own cause, groups like the NAACP have to be extra-careful not to cry racism without good reason, a duty that appears to have been abrogated here.

The thing is, no one affiliated with the NAACP called the card racist.

Every article and blog post I can find draws its quotes and other details entirely from this two-minute segment on an LA-area local news broadcast (either directly or through an intermediate source, like the Fox News article). The only person who uses the R-word during the segment is KABC anchor David Ono, who was not the reporter at the NAACP meeting where this whole mess got started. It’s unclear if Ono has inside information he’s not letting us in on, but all Leon Jenkins of the NAACP says in the video is that the card is “very demeaning to African-American women.”

The headline on the Fox News article is “NAACP Urges Hallmark to Pull 'Racist' Card From Shelves.” Notice the quotation marks. Who are they quoting? KABC anchor David Ono? Their own interns? Glenn Beck? I'm sure he's said it at some point. Maybe they’re using scare quotes, like they did here and here (but not here or here).[2] But then, I could’ve sworn the whole point of scare quotes is to instill a sense of skepticism about a term that’s actually, you know, a part of the story attributable to someone other than a headline writer or local news anchor. Did Fox feel the article would not be sufficiently “fair and balanced” unless they introduced more inflammatory language? (See, that’s how you use scare quotes.)

Anyway, to me, the card is about as demeaning as it is racist, which is to say not at all, but there are some important differences between the terms. For one, an accusation of racism carries much more severity. Also, something can be demeaning without any malicious intent, or even conscious thought. A greeting card, as a non-sentient inanimate object, cannot be racist, but it can certainly be demeaning. It is more semantically defensible to call the humans who created the card racist, but it still creates the implication that, at the very least, they intentionally or knowingly designed a derogatory card. Demeaning-ness, on the other hand, refers only to the final product—the creative process (or lack thereof) that led to it is largely irrelevant.[3]

So, is the card racist? Of course not. Is it demeaning? Eh…I don’t see it, but if there is an argument to be made that anything unsavory is going on here, I can’t think of a more appropriate term to use.

Conservatives love to accuse groups like the NAACP of playing the racism card every time they’re upset about something, but the conservatives are playing solitaire on this one (couldn’t resist) in an attempt to make the NAACP look even sillier than they would've looked on their own. I mentioned above that it seems like accusations of racism are being thrown around more and more often and for increasingly less compelling reasons. Suddenly I feel the need to re-evaluate my theories on why that is.

1. Foxian? Foxtastic? How about Foxetious?
2. I’m not going to fully investigate this now (maybe when I have a few more readers), but a search of the Fox News archives brings up a ton of articles with “racist” or “racism” in the headline, sometimes in quotation marks and sometimes not. The vast majority do not use either word anywhere in the body of the article, much less within a quotation by someone upset about whatever is going on (and one such quote was anonymously attributed to a Facebook post).
3. Ok, so the NAACP members shown in the video do, in fact, seem to be accusing Hallmark of designing a demeaning card on purpose. That’s nutty, but at least they were restrained enough not to call the Hallmark people racists.


  1. does the NAACP complain about things that aren't race related? i think it's a fair analysis.